[asa] Consensus science

From: Randy Isaac <randyisaac@comcast.net>
Date: Wed Aug 26 2009 - 14:07:50 EDT

Cameron wrote:
  "> I have found it interesting, though -- and relevant to the purpose of
> ASA, which is in part to promote responsible science and analyze the
> foundations of scientific belief -- that over the last several months, on
> this site, people are always linking to sites and articles and blogs that
> purport to show beyond doubt that the data posted by the "deniers" is all
> wrong, filled with lies, written by the oil companies, etc., whereas over
> at UD, an equal or greater number of sites and articles and blogs are
> cited that purport to show beyond all doubt that world temperatures have
> "flatlined" since about 2002, that the arctic icecaps have almost
> recovered, etc. Almost all the ASA people have appeared to believe their
> sources uncritically, and almost all the UD people appear to believe their
> sources equally uncritically. So who is an intelligent, neutral person
> supposed to believe? The dozens of facts and opinions endorsed by
> admiring ASA people, or the dozens of facts and opinions endorsed by
> admiring UD people?
> If I am wrong in saying the above, I invite correction. But if I am
> right, I cannot understand the uncritical attitude that pervades this
> list, leading to the mere following of consensus or authority on major
> controversial issues. Why do people here trust the AGW websites and
> opinions, and not the anti-AGW websites and opinions, *unless they can do
> the science themselves*? I simply do not believe that the almost complete
> submission to AGW here, versus the almost complete rejection of it over at
> UD, is a statistical fluke. There are "predispositions to believe" and
> "predispositions to disbelieve" going on here. Why should there be such a
> correlation between ID and AGW skepticism, and TE and fervent AGW
> endorsement? Something deeper is going on here than a mere debate over
> the techniques of measuring Arctic ice thickness."

This is a great segue for me to comment on some aspects that are near and
dear to my heart. Consensus science, though a term not liked by some on this
list, is an extremely important concept. I use it to refer to the results of
science that are agreed to by the vast majority of scientists actively
working and publishing in that particular field. It does not include
untested assumptions or speculations in frontiers of science.

The concept of consensus is critical because as scientists we recognize that
any individual can influence their scientific results inadvertently through
an ingrained bias or subtly flawed experimental technique or any of a
multitude of factors that can affect results. Consensus means that multiple
individuals or groups have worked on and studied the same phenomena
independently and have arrived at the same conclusion. The more individuals
who have done this, the less likely it is that subjective elements have
distorted the results.

Once consensus has been reached, it is a highly reliable basis for further
research into the unknown. Contrary to popular perceptions, science almost
always makes progress by building on consensus science, not by overturning
it. Yes, some love to point to anecdotal counterexamples and they do exist.
But they are not the rule.

The net is that if one is not actively working or an expert in a particular
field, and if one does not have time to study it in detail, and if it comes
to a choice between uncritically accepting consensus science versus
cynically rejecting consensus science, the former is always the safer bet.
Occasionally one might lose the bet but not very often.

I am particularly fond of ASA because it consists of Christians who have
actual responsibilities in science, either in teaching or in research or
retired from those vocations. They understand science and have a good
intuitive feel of what one can trust and what can't be trusted. So I think
it is a high compliment to say that ASA members on this list uncritically
accept consensus science in areas where they are not expert rather than
rejecting it. It is even better that we usually have an expert in every
field who is working and publishing in that field and can explain the
details to the rest of us as needed.

Furthermore, in our quest to integrate our faith with science, a great big
yellow (or red) flag must be raised if such integration requires a
modification or repudiation of consensus science. It may be right but the
odds are against it. The same can be said if it requires a repudiation of
the basic creeds of Christianity.

Yes, some people, most notably Freeman Dyson, love to be contrarians. By
nature they rebel against accepting anything just because other people say
it's the consensus. There's a place for such an attitude and it can be
helpful at times in ferreting out new ideas. But few people are able to know
when to rebel and when not to. Too often this is a cover to simply maintain
a rebellious attitude in an area where they have philosophical or
theological reasons for opposing consensus science.

To move from the general to the specific, both anthropogenic global warming
and the theory of evolution are examples of consensus science. I think we
can all agree on that, even those who object to the theories themselves and
think they should not be the consensus. Yes, there are many vocal
expressions against these ideas but the fact that none has gained traction
in the community of scientific experts is not because of bias or lack of
consideration but rather because all these arguments have already been dealt
with, one place or another. If these areas of consensus science are in fact
wrong, that will become abundantly evident in due course through the work of
the active scientists.


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Received on Wed Aug 26 14:09:38 2009

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